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The Curse of “Salvator Mundi”

Leonardo Da Vinci's Salvator Mundi is the world's most expensive painting. Credit: Tolga Akmen / AFP / Getty Images

In the wake of Halloween, let us take a closer look at the phenomenal story of “Salvator Mundi”, the most expensive painting in history and easily the most mysterious one. Painted by Leonardo da Vinci c. 1500, it depicts Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the World. Even from the look of it, you can tell this is a very special painting. Rarely an artwork evokes such a disturbing sense of transcendence. And it only strengthens as you study its curious biography. 
An Unlikely Discovery

The provenance of “Salvator Mundi” is spotty. It assumed that in 1625, Queen Henrietta of France took it to England when she married King Charles I. In 1649, the King was beheaded. The painting then goes missing for about 200 years until surfacing as part of Sir Frederick Cook art collections.

In 1958, it popped up at a Sotheby’s London auction as a work by Leonardo’s apprentice, where it sold for the little sum of $120. No one could have imagined back then that in the following 59 years its price would go up to a whopping $450 million. It is astonishing that it hardly made any of its owners or anyone associated with its sale, truly happy. 

When Robert Simon and Alex Parish purchased “Lot 664” at the New Orleans Hendry estate sale in 2005, no one knew “Salvator Mundi” existed. It was believed to be long lost. Simon and Parish probably thought they were buying another copy for less than $10,000.

It was mangled by unsuccessful re-painting attempts; the walnut panel cracked. But Simon suspected there was something more to be seen there and, as it turned out, for a reason. When he took the painting to Dianne Dwyer Modestini and her husband Mario, both respected old masters experts, it eventually became more and more evident they had found a Leonardo master original. 

Simon and Modestini spent the next six years restoring the masterpiece and proving its legitimacy. Hoping to sell the painting to a big museum, Simon and Parish enlisted the help of Warren Adelson, president of Adelson Galleries. To their dismay, Dallas Museum of Art donors were unable to provide the $150 million they were seeking. Some Russian billionaire was allegedly interested in the painting but cancelled the meeting in the end.

Disheartened and out of options, they had to take the offer from Sotheby’s, who brought, as they put it, “one of the biggest clients”. That turned out to be Yves Bouvier, a Swiss art dealer and freeport operator. His man Jean-Marc Peretti told Adelson, whom the consortium of sellers sent to Paris for negotiations, that anything above $80 million was out of discussion. Sotheby’s vice-chairman for private sales worldwide Samuel Valette, also present at the meeting, assured Adelson the offer was fair. Adelson had no choice but to accept. 

The Fraud of the Century

It turned out that Bouvier, no matter how big of a client he was for Sotheby’s, had been working as an art agent for Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev from 2003. But he didn’t just hand “Salvator Mundi” over to his principal, he sold it to him. And not for $80 million, but for $127.5 million.

Imagine the Russian’s surprise when he found out that that was more or less the case with all 38 artworks he acquired via Bouvier from 2003 to 2014. The total amount of damage from what is now known as “The Yves Bouvier Affair” is estimated at $1 billion.

Bouvier, now a Singapore resident, faces criminal charges in several countries. Simon, Parish and Adelson immediately realized they were cheated by Yves Bouvier and Sotheby’s. The auction house, which was supposed to act in the best interests of the sellers, unambiguously aided the Swiss art dealer and covered up for him. For Simon and his colleagues, parting with the “Salvator Mundi” they so miraculously salvaged and dedicated six years of their lives was heartbreaking and the fact they never got a fair price for it only made it worse.           

Dmitry Rybolovlev’s discovery of Bouvier’s scheme prompted him to sell some items from his collection, including “Salvator Mundi”. While Bouvier and his associates may entertain the idea that the $450 million price it fetched at Christie’s, clears them of any wrongdoing, the Russian definitely sees it otherwise. One of his lawyers said in a statement quoted by Forbes that they will continue to sue him for this very serious scheme to defraud, of which they have suffered.

Furthermore, the price record was only shattered because the two Arab princes – Bader bin Abdullah and Mohammed bin Zayed – accidentally cost themselves $450 million in an anonymous bidding war. Each thought the other was their rival from Qatar. The Saudi regime was highly criticized for the purchase. Recently “Salvator Mundi” was set to be revealed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi but the unveiling was indefinitely postponed for reasons unknown. 

Susan Hendry Tureau, a 70-year-old retired library technician in Baton Rouge, La., only a couple of months ago learned that a painting her father, Basil Clovis Hendry Sr., had owned was re-authenticated as a da Vinci. So, basically $450 million was hanging on the wall at the plantation-style Baton Rouge home of her father through the better part of her life. She actually finds solace in that “such an incredible piece could have been in our family and we didn’t even know it all this time.”

Simon, Parish and Adelson lost $20 million on the sale of “Salvator Mundi”, the Russians – $47.5 million, the two Arab princes – over $100 million. But it actually may cost Yves Bouvier and Sotheby’s even more.

Bouvier is currently under investigation in several countries for fraud, money laundering and tax evasion amounting to a total of over $1 billion; his reputation is undone. Sotheby’s, in turn, is now facing a $380 million lawsuit from two Rybolovlev entities for its part in the Yves Bouvier affair. Who knows, maybe there is indeed something sinister about this painting, after all.

The Brussels Times